The writer maps out the genius of Professor Conjeevaram Srirangachari Seshadri, who turned 82 on February 29.
The chemical messages in the DNA decide the form of the complete organism. In the case of Prof. C.S .Seshadri, one can say that double helix of his DNA is made up of Mathematics and Music. So deeply entwined are the two Ms that they are inseparable. He has often admitted to his colleagues, “If I had not taken up Mathematics as my profession, I would have taken up Music!”
Born on February 29, 1932, in Kanchipuram, Prof. C.S. Seshadri is the oldest of 11 children — a “cricket team” as he says — with the opening batsman and the last one, Rajan, both choosing Mathematics as their profession. His uncle, T.A. Rangaswamy, was responsible for kindling his interest in Mathematics. From St. Joseph’s School in Chingleput, he moved to Loyola College to complete his degree in Mathematics (with Prof. Narayan and Fr. Racine as his mentors). Later he completed his Ph.D. (“Generalised multiplicative meromorphic functions on a complex manifold”) at the famous Hall of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (under the guidance of Prof. K. Chandrasekharan). Seshadri’s rise as a mathematician was “constant” and meteoric.
Sent to Paris on deputation from TIFR (between 1957 and 1960), he imbibed the culture of the land along with Mathematics. It is not surprising that he was bowled over by the French tastes in math, wine and cuisine, a truly heady mixture. Influenced by the illuminating brilliance of Mathematical “Grandmasters” like Chevalley, Cartan, Schwartz, Grothendieck and Serre, Seshadri returned to TIFR where he was responsible for establishing an internationally recognised centre for Algebraic Geometry. He is considered as one of the pioneers of the School of Mathematics, Tata Institute.
“If the teacher is indeed wise, he does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” Kahlil Gibran
“C.S. Seshadri is a teacher in a very unconventional sense of the term. An immense amount of attention will be shown towards ... the elementary parts of the mathematics, while the really hard and deeper aspects will be essentially explained away with a typical Seshadri wave of the hand, generously sprinkled with a number of half sentences disappearing into a void much like the anahata nada, Kabir's ‘unstruck note’. I have often wondered on the excessive attention to ‘trivial’ details and after many years I understand. All deep work lies in this humble part of the activity. If the teacher can impart the care that needs to be taken for these aspects, the so-called deeper parts of the subject ought to become clear through a mysterious clearing of space,” says Prof. Vikraman Balaji, his student, now a Professor of Mathematics at Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI).
“Seshadri can listen to a question and quickly position the problem in a very broad canvas, illuminate it, and lead the learner to a wider understanding of it. Very few have achieved a synthesis of the two roles (teacher and mathematician), and Seshadri is one,” says Prof. K.R. Nagarajan.
After his pioneering work at TIFR, he moved to the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, in 1984. His constant engagement with students coupled with his ever-keen mind was probably responsible for the crystallisation of the vision of CMI because here he was finally able to express all that he had assimilated over the years of his mathematical journey.
Prof. Balaji says, “CMI is a unique institution that attempts to integrate undergraduate education with research. It grew out of Seshadri’s belief that higher learning can only happen in an atmosphere of active research in the presence of masters. It was a brave venture in the face of extraordinary opposition and scepticism even from his very close friends and well wishers.”
According to Seshadri, the ideal programme ought to offer all that is best in sciences and humanities and create an atmosphere of open enquiry and learning. Originally part of the SPIC Mathematical Institute realised by the vision of A.C. Muthiah, in the formation of which the late S. Parthasarathy played a vital role, the name was later changed to Chennai Mathematical Institute, and is regarded as a unique institution in India today.
“While there are people who pursue their vision by force of their personality, Seshadri does it by foresightedness and persistence. He saw it as an institution for what others needed and wanted from it, not as an extension of himself.” says Prof. Madhavan.
Over the past five decades, Seshadri has been a towering figure in the mathematical horizon and his contributions have been central to the development of Moduli problems and Geometric invariant theory as well as Representation theory of algebraic groups. Hailed as an inspiring teacher, he has been regarded as a leader of a whole generation of mathematicians. His contribution to the field has been so significant that mathematical giants the world over have acknowledged his contribution. As British mathematician Michael Atiyah said: “He and I have … a common interest in the study of vector bundles and algebraic curves….The development of algebraic geometry and the related parts of theoretical physics have shown how important this work was. It pioneered the whole area.”
Russian mathematician Vladimir Popov has expressed his admiration of Seshadri’s contribution to Math: “Your classical results on Picard varieties, moduli of vector bundles on algebraic curves, Serre conjecture, geometric invariant theory and Mumford conjecture belong to the golden fund of algebraic geometry and algebraic group theory. You are the leader of a scientific school that created modern standard monomial theory, the beautiful breakthrough linking representation theory, algebraic group and quantum groups.”
In the area of Representation theory, Seshadri may be described as the founder of modern Standard Monomial Theory. Speaking about her mentor, Prof. Lakshmibai (who first worked as his Ph.D candidate and later as a collaborator in his work on Standard Monomial Theory) says, “Not only did I learn Maths under him, I also learnt a lot of good things about life just by watching him.” In the words of Prof. K. Chandrasekharan, “Seshadri’s career witnesses the leap of India in the world of mathematics from the era of Srinivasa Ramanujan into the post Ramanujam era of multivalent structures that inter-penetrate and make of mathematics a many-splendoured thing... It is a joy to notice that Seshadri’s originality is not confined to his own research work with its inspiring influence. His accomplishment of the integration of under graduate education with graduate courses and post graduate research makes him, and the institute he heads, exceptional in the realm of science.”
Music, to Seshadri, is as much a muse as maths. His passion for the subject is so deep that he has spent hours learning and understanding the nuances of each composition. He has a deep fondness for Dhrupad and it is delight to listen to him speak about yesteryear master musicians and, when inspired, regale listeners with a classical rendering of various compositions.
“His expression of the voice, enunciation of syllable and unhurried steady tempo are all marked by great sensitivity; a quality that many professional Carnatic musicians would do well to emulate. When he sings the kirtana Tappibratiki in Todi, each sangati is clear and beautifully chiselled. It is possible that Seshadri, a serious listener of Western Classical and Hindustani genre, became very conscious about the careful attention to be paid to musical expression,” says musicologist Prof. Ramanathan. Dr. Swapnasundari, the eminent dancer and scholar, also reaffirms Seshadri’s musical sensibility. “He not only has an intuitive knowledge but is also versed with the academic aspects of music. Most people are touched by the spirituality of his musical rendering. It is understandable because maths and music are not so far apart; there is a certain degree of abstraction in both that calls for spirituality in the respective areas.”
Seshadri’s life is closely woven around his 11-member family, his wife, children, and friends. His charming wife, Sundari, is not only a fabulous singer and theatre person, but has all the mathematicians literally eating out of her hands; the result of being a fabulous cook and a warm and generous host.
Ask her about Mathematics and she says, “Algebra was the only section in the paper I always left unanswered!” She explains that she understood after her marriage that it probably resided somewhere in the empty space, for he always waved his hands in the air to draw circles in the clockwise direction and then anticlockwise direction! In the early days of their marriage, when she saw him looking in her direction, she was floored by what she thought was a romantic glance. Only, as the years passed by, did she understand that not only was he staring into empty space vacantly, but also that the brain seldom worked on a romantic incline and was almost always only mathematically or musically alert!
Prof. Sridharan, a dear friend and colleague of 60 years, says, “Seshadri is someone who worked well in spite of personal pressure, and is an embodiment of simplicity. He never misunderstood when we disagreed and could never be arrogant.” This is the man who has shared maths, music, friendship and more, for Seshadri himself admits that Sridharan joined him at CMI when he most needed him. All the accolades, awards, and laurels sit lightly on his shoulders. Had Churchill met Seshadri, he would have perhaps rephrased his own remark: “A much modest man who has nothing he needs to be modest about.”
Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in 1972 and 1995.
Srinivasa Ramanujan Medal of Indian National Science Academy in 1985.
Srinivasa Ramanujan Birth Centenary Award in 1995-96.
The Trieste Science Prize in 2006.
Padma Bhushan in 2009.
Elected Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2010.
Honoris Causa, University Pierre et Marie Curie , Paris 6,France, 2013.
Fellow of Indian Academy of Sciences, 1971; Indian National Science Academy, 1973; Royal Society, London, 1988; Third World Academy of Sciences, 1988.